Esports takes live cloud production to the next level


By Mike Cronk, VP of Advanced Technology at Grass Valley

With its roots in the arcades, esports was once niche to the sports business but has matured spectacularly into a professional industry in its own right. As competitive video games continue to integrate into popular culture, global investors, brands, media outlets, and consumers are all paying attention.

Even this year, despite spectators being locked out of stadia, live events truncated and esports companies forced to produce remotely esports has managed to grow an astonishing +14.5% from $947.1 million in 2020 to over a billion dollars for the first time.

That’s according to esports and video game analysts NewZoo which also forecasts $833.6 million in revenues – over 75% of the total esports market – will come from media rights and sponsorship in 2021. Audiences are growing too with the global games live-streaming audience hitting $728.8 million in 2021, up 10% from 2020.

The future of esports on the consumer side will likely be powered by mobile, which will further reduce barriers to entry and allow even more gamers and fans to pour in. In particular, 5G connectivity will reduce latency so dramatically it will allow even deeper realtime interaction between fans and players and perhaps lead to new gaming formats.

On the production side the future is already here. Live production is happening today in the cloud bringing incredible flexibility, efficiency and reach for esports teams, leagues and publishers to grow the market.

EA Sports and Gfinity have pioneered this exciting development. Electronic Arts Competitive Gaming Entertainment (CGE), the company’s esports division, began fully distributed, remote production for its major competitive gaming events EA SPORTS™ FIFA 21 and Apex Legends. The end-to-end cloud workflow allows EA to deliver broadcast quality storytelling to its global fanbase – with a production team working from their respective homes – regardless of where the live tournament is taking place.

London-based international esports and gaming solutions provider Gfinity began producing and delivering multi-day live esports broadcasts for one of its virtual professional motorsports series, entirely in the cloud. This included remotely controlled camera feeds from multiple individual player locations across Europe monitored, synchronized and switched in the cloud.


Esports takes the lead

Like many organizations producing live events, EA and Gfinity made the move to remote production for business continuity forced by COVID-19.

Both projects were also enabled through GV AMPP (Agile Media Processing Platform). This is the Grass Valley cloud-based SaaS platform that marries broadcast-quality production tools with the agility of deploying virtual machines on a dime allied with the massive firepower of cloud compute.

What AMPP enables, and what EA and Gfinity have proved, is that the complexities of professional live production in the cloud can be solved with the right solutions partner. These major brands delivered unmatched viewing experiences for gaming fans around the globe. Traditional sports broadcasters, hampered as many are by legacy equipment investments, are sitting up and taking note.

Latency is a key issue that comes with the fast-paced nature of esports – even a slight syncing issue impacts the end-user experience. But with AMPP, that’s all taken care of. Thanks to its innate low-latency and intelligent timing management capability there is virtually no difference to punching the show in a physical studio.

With GV AMPP, everyone from the technical director to the talent works remotely as necessary, with no compromise on their ability to deliver stunning content. The EA team can manage live production of its gaming events more efficiently, rapidly pivoting geographically to meet esports fans’ needs across Europe, Asia and the Americas.

It wasn’t always this way. A lot of early moves to the cloud were in reality attempts to lift and shift tools made for bespoke hardware onto virtual machines or just to transport signals from one facility another. It took time and specialist knowledge to adapt existing systems for IP and COTS servers. Lack of interoperability between equipment rendered certain workflows unworkable, or risked vendor lock-in. Systems integration teams were learning how to piece together broadcast engineering with IT on the job.

As an analogy, the early transition to IP and cloud felt like a visit to RadioShack. You’d buy all the different parts off the shelf then head home to solder the capacitors and transistors and LEDs to the circuit board into a rudimentary PC. It may have worked but it’s no way to make a living or run a business at scale. The resources required to do this are astronomical.

Contrast that to today when we all have a smartphone in our pocket. Its onboard computer can power a flashlight, a calculator, a camera and we can download all manner of apps to personalize our experience. It is, in essence, a unified platform where tools and services are accessed from a single familiar interface.


Unified platform

That’s how we conceived GV AMPP. As part of the larger GV Media Universe, GV AMPP sits at the center of a comprehensive ecosystem of connected solutions, services and marketplaces that make cloud-based media workflows a reality.

The range of applications available through GV AMPP mirror everything needed to run professional live production in the cloud. These include master control, flow monitors, clip players, master control switcher, I/Os, test signal generators, AV mux, delay modules, graphics, multiviewers, recorders and streamers. GV AMPP also provides access to extensive probing and monitoring capabilities for transparency across all parts of the workflow.

In an industry first, EA’s workflow utilized Grass Valley’s GV Korona switcher control panel connected over the public internet to a K-Frame production center engine running on GV AMPP in the cloud. These are the same K-Frame switchers used to produce the Super Bowl.

For EA, the familiar operator-specific UI is central to ensuring productions run smoothly and consistently. AMPP Master Control is accessed using the same AMPP switching fabric, which also provides the feed that’s critical to successfully switching programming.

Being able to handle everything from live switching to multiviewers in the cloud through AMPP extends a company’s ability to produce content remotely and deliver improved utilization of resources by spinning up and down apps as required.


New capabilities

And the power is growing all the time. GV AMPP has been enabling live esports productions in the cloud since February 2020 ingesting, processing and switching 4-8 sources. In less than a year that has ramped up to 30-camera productions and we can go even higher. This capability is going to increase over time as we optimize certain software processes and as compute gets faster and better.

More than this, the choice for any professional sports organization is now real. There is no longer a need to stick to the rigid cost and content parameters of the traditional broadcasting model. Leveraging unified platforms, such as GV AMPP, allows true global reach as well as the ultimate in distributed remote production. Live events can be produced in the West Coast US with signals routed from a venue in Europe or Australia via an AWS datacenter on the US East Coast.

Workflows can be centralized, enabling productions to base key talent and crew in one gallery saving time and cost on travel while able to create more content from more events. The same cloud SaaS platform also enables all production personnel to work from home even over modest internet connections in a ultra-distributed fashion.

Not only is this possible, it is happening now and esports has taken a pioneering role in the transformation.

The Chinese cable op
GatesAir enhance its